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Horror Mystery and Lore Lifestyle

Oddities of the Bayou: Religions and the Occult

The Voodoo Religion of New Orleans

Zombie standing in a dark cornfield
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

The roots of voodoo run deep with the sordid history of slavery in America, originating from the traditional West African religion of vodoun (also vodun), it further evolved once it reached Haiti and Louisiana. Louisiana voodoo—properly known as vodoun—the queens and priestesses hold the highest position within this matriarchal religion. Something that may surprise those unfamiliar with vodoun, is that it’s actually a monotheistic religion which centers around the supreme creator, Bondye (French Creole for “good god”) who controls life and destiny. Bondye manifests his will through the many loa (also lwa) present within this belief system.

Loa: Spirits of Vodoun

The loa are spirits who connect the followers of vodoun to their deity—through the use of vèvè, symbols which serve as visual representation of the loa during ritual, practitioners are able to call upon the loa for their assistance in personal matters. Despite many people not having any formal knowledge of loa or their role in the religious practices of vodoun, they would easily recognize the visage of popular spirits such as Papa Ghede and Papa Legba, if not just as cultural references that they associate with New Orleans in general.

Assortment of voodoo dolls
Photography by Wian Juanico

Misconceptions of Voodoo Dolls

Misrepresented time and time again, voodoo dolls have come to represent something far beyond the reach of what they were originally used for. Hollywood would have us convinced that they’re instruments of evil, used to control the actions of people, or otherwise wreak havoc, and destroy their lives. Except voodoo dolls are not traditionally used to cause people harm in any sense of the word. These dolls are indeed used as a physical representation of the person who is the focus of the ritual, but instead of harm, they are often used for among other things, love, success, and healing.

The Mystery of Zombification

A far cry from the stereotypical walking dead that has made the horror genre of international cinema so powerful, the origin of zombies is quite a bit more disturbing than we’re used to these days. When it comes to the origin of zombie lore, the fear isn’t derived from the idea of being the main course of a zombie feast—instead it’s the idea of being turned into a zombie. The short and sweet version? Zombies as derived from the Haitian vodun practice are actually living people, who have been chemically induced to have no free-will.

New Orleans Voodoo Display
Photography by Jane Hawkner

Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork: African American Folk Magic

Many people believe that hoodoo and voodoo are interchangeable—it’s not a tough concept to explain that while they’re similar, they’re not the same, but it still seems to be an ongoing issue of mistaken identity. Voodoo, as has been explained now, is actually a religion that utilizes the folk magic practice, whereas hoodoo is actually just a folk magic practice with no hard and fast religious affiliation, although most practitioners identify as Protestant Christians. To be clear, hoodoo is but one of the most common types of African American Folk Magic, with other practices such as conjure and rootwork being nearly interchangeable with minimal differences, other than the region in which they are practiced.

Mural, Santeria the worship of Saints
Photography by Gerhard Lipold

Santería: The Worship of Saints

Another religion that is commonly mistaken for voodoo, is Santería—a religion that also has West African origins, but was further developed in Cuba among West African descendants. One of Louisiana’s best kept religious secrets, this Yoruba based religion merged with Roman Catholicism and embraced the Catholic saints, referred to often as orishas who act as emissaries to God—Olodumare.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster

Dark and spooky swampland
Photography by Anthony Roberts

A legend known in the Bayou is that of the Honey Island Swamp Monster—a bipedal cryptid that is likened to bigfoot, but described physically as being quite dissimilar other than its stature. This grey-haired, yellow (or red, depending on the source) eyed monster is said to be a creature that was born from chimpanzees that escaped from a circus train that wrecked on the tracks, and the local alligator population.

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Horror Mystery and Lore

The Honey Island Swamp Monster of Louisiana

Dark and spooky swampland
Photography by Anthony Roberts

Louisiana is rife with local folklore, particularly stemming from the untouched acres of the Honey Island Swamp just a short drive from New Orleans. These legends are of the pirates of the Bayou who were said to have hidden buried treasures, Native American ghosts, and the mysterious green lights that lure unsuspecting night travelers into the depths of the swamp, never to be seen again. These are just a few examples of all of the stories that are hidden in the unfathomable depths of the Louisiana swamps, which is home to the Honey Island Swamp Monster.

In August of 1963, Harlan Ford—a retired air traffic controller—was the first to catch sight of the bigfoot of the Bayou, having recently taken up wildlife photography. He described this seven-foot-tall, bipedal creature as being covered in grey hair, with yellow or red inhuman eyes set deep into its primatial face. The air hangs thick around this swamp monster, with an odor of rotting, decaying flesh—a smell so distinctive and disgusting that it would warn anyone of its presence.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster
Honey Island Swamp Monster

In 1974, the Honey Island Swamp Monster gained fame nationally, after Ford and his associate Billy Mills claimed to have found footprints that weren’t like any other creature in the area—these footprints according to myth, and a chance casting of a footprint found by these two men were at between ten to twelve inches long with three webbed toes, along with an opposable digit that was set much farther back than the others. Along with the luck of finding this footprint and casting it, they found the body of a wild board whose throat had been gashed open just a short way away. For the next six years, until his death in 1980, Ford continued to hunt for the creature—after his passing, a reel of Super 8 film was found among the belongings he had left behind, this film supposedly showed proof of the creature’s existence.

In the early twentieth century, before the first reported sighting of the Honey Island Swamp Monster by Ford, there was a legend of a traveling circus—traveling by train, a catastrophic wreck resulted in the escape of a group of chimpanzees. These chimpanzees were said to have gone deep into the swamps and interbred with the local alligator population. The Native Americans who called the area home, referred to the creature as the Letiche—they knew it as carnivorous, living both on land and in water—they believed this creature had originated as an abandoned child, raised by alligators in the darkest, most untouched regions of the swamp.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster caught on Super 8 Video footage

Researchers who have studied the lore of the Honey Island Swamp Monster, believe that it is related to Bigfoot—one reason that it is often referred to as the Bigfoot of the Bayou. While their description is similar, the tracks do not resemble those collected of Bigfoot from the Pacific North West. Despite the reputable nature of Ford and Mills, there have been a number of shows that have focused on hunting down the Honey Island Swamp Monster in order to prove the existence of this cryptid—all of them have come down on the side of the whole thing being a hoax, which isn’t entirely surprising.